Saudi Arabia-West Backed Coalition Disintegrating in Yemen?
Yemeni Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman had called for end to military occupation of her country
In Yemen, the coalition set up by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and Sudan to counter the Iran backed Houthis from the North, appears to be disintegrating. The USA and UK have been providing key intelligence and logistical support to the coalition.
The worst internecine clashes yet, between the southern separatists, allied to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and forces loyal to the Saudi-based government of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, are likely to work to the advantage of the Houthis and their backers. Reports also said that Islamist networks, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State group, have exploited the war to expand their presence in southern Yemen.
Fourteen soldiers were killed in a suicide attack by suspected Islamist extremists when a bomb struck a checkpoint manned by UAE-trained special operations forces in Ataq, capital of the oil-rich province of Shabwa, controlled by Yemen's Saudi-backed government.
Saudi and UAE envoys have been shuttling between the Yemeni government forces and the southern separatists in Aden with reports saying that the separatists seized the last stronghold of President Hadi’s Presidential Protection Forces in the Dar Saad area of northern Aden, in battles that at times involved heavy artillery and tank fire. Activists have shared photos on social media of the flag of the former independent Southern Yemen state flying over the base’s gate.
Prime Minister Ahmed bin Daghr denounced the moves by the southern separatists as a coup and said that events in Aden were headed towards "total military confrontation" and urged members of the coalition, in particular the UAE, to take action. He has warned that separating south Yemen from the rest of the country would benefit the Houthis.
Tensions had risen in Aden since the United Arab Emirates-allied Southern Transitional Council vowed to overthrow the government of Ahmed bin Daghr unless Hadi dismissed his cabinet within a week. The Council has been accusing bin Daghr’s government of starving Yemenis and pushing the impoverished country to the verge of famine. According to the United Nations three years of escalated conflict has turned Yemen into the worst man-made humanitarian crisis. Three quarters of the population - 22.2 million people - need humanitarian assistance, including 11.3 million people in acute need who urgently require assistance to survive.
The genesis of the present North- South conflict lies in Yemen’s history. South Yemen was an independent state ─ with former British colony Aden as its capital ─ from its formation in 1967 until 1990, when it was unified with North Yemen under northern leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. Four years later, the South launched a separatist rebellion that culminated in its occupation by northern forces.
Saudi Arabia and the West backed Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as President after an uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh that started in 2011. The Houthis, an armed group whose members belong to a branch of Shi'a Islam known as Zayidism, seized Sanaa in September 2014 with the help of Saleh and army units loyal to him and increasingly consolidated their grip on Sanaa and the north. Saleh was assassinated by the Houthis in December 2017 when he publicly distanced himself from them and wanted to join up with the Saudi led coalition.
After capturing Sanaa in 2014 the Houthis began their march south towards Aden in a military campaign that culminated in President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fleeing the country and taking exile in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition thereafter entered the war in March 2015 and to help local fighters free Aden from Houthi control and also helped them make other military gains in different parts of the country. But the Houthis continue to control most of northern Yemen, including Sanaa with increasing support from Iran.
The internecine clashes in the past days between constituents of the Saudi led coalition are a manifestation of the continued desire of southerners to secede. The southern separatists ─ who want the return of an independent state that ended with Yemen's unification in 1990 ─ have backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government against the Houthis. Hadi loyalists had earlier been boosted by the Popular Resistance alliance of southern separatists and tribesmen who took up arms after the Houthis advanced on their regions. But tensions between the two sides had been rising.
In May 2007 in South Yemen, retirees who had not received pensions for years took to the streets to protest economic and political inequality. The movement gained momentum and evolved into open calls for sovereignty of the region. The authorities branded the demonstrators as "apostates of the state" and reportedly fired on them. The Southern Movement was formed in response to the purported shootings, embracing a diverse mosaic of groups sticking to the idea of splitting from the North. Herak rebels are said to have spearheaded the movement.
The Southern Transitional Council was formed last year to push for a split between the former South Yemen and North Yemen as an autonomous body aimed at overseeing self-governance among southern provinces. The 26-member council, which is not recognised by Hadi's government, includes the governors of five southern provinces and two cabinet ministers. Former Aden governor Aidarous al-Zoubeidi formed the council in May after Hadi fired him the previous month. The council asked Hadi to make changes in the government and gave him one week to do so.
The conflict in Yemen has become a confrontation between the ambitions of the Arabs led by Saudi Arabia and Iran backing the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and the United States have accused Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthis and after the Houthis fired missiles into Saudi Arabia including at the Crown Prince’s palace and targeted the official residence of King Salman, both the USA and Riyadh described the latest missile as "Iranian-Huthi". US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley had displayed missile parts which she said were evidence of the missiles Iranian origin.
While Arab League Assistant Secretary General Ambassador Hossam Zaki has said the pan-Arab organisation is optimistic about achieving progress in Yemen, years of UN backed peace keeping efforts have floundered. The war has killed over 10,000 Yemenis, mostly children, and displaced 3 million others. The United Nations has listed Yemen as the world’s number one humanitarian crisis, with 7 million Yemenis on the brink of famine and cholera.
The United Nations and humanitarian partners have launched the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian response, which sought $2.96 billion to provide life-saving assistance to 13.1 million people this year. Saudi Arabia said it would transfer $2 billion to Yemen's central bank, after desperate calls for funding from the country's President and Prime Minister.
But the Saudi led coalition has expressed unhappiness at what it said is the UN bias towards the rebels. The coalition issued a statement carried by the Saudi news agency SPA that the U.N. needed to review the humanitarian work mechanism and the competence of its employees working in Yemen. The statement came after the UN said that coalition airstrikes killed 109 civilians over the past 10 days, including 68 in one day in separate airstrikes.
Reports say that the escalation in Saudi airstrikes has led to Yemen’s western coastal areas becoming deserted with the bombardments affecting the people who mostly depend on tourism and fishery for their livelihood. U.S. drone strikes have also aided the Saudi led forces with demonstrations against the strikes taking place in particularly in the southern province of Shabwa where civilians were killed in late January.
Yemeni Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman had called for an end to what she says is a military occupation of her country by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), powerful Arab states she accuses of repressing democratic change in the region.
Some countries like Norway and Germany have decided not to allow the sale of weapons to countries involved in the conflict. But in the United Kingdom, the Courts have ruled that there was nothing improper in providing export licences for weapons while Iran is quite unlikely to stop aiding the Houthis. So the possibility that the conflict could be resolved, as optimistically expressed by the Arab League official, seems highly unlikely.